Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Share Your Scary Real Life Experience for a Chance to Win!

What's the scariest thing that ever happened to you? See a ghost? Aliens? Weird things in the woods?




I'm looking for real-life anecdotes and creepy campfire tales based on true events. Maybe it happened to you. Maybe it happened to someone you know. Both types of stories are valid. Creepypasta type stories, ghost stories, alien visitations, monster or cryptid sightings, I'd LOVE to hear about it.

You can send me the story via email at cassie@bloodywhisper.com or you can share it in a comment here!


The best 10 tales will be embellished and woven into fully fleshed scary stories based on things that happened to you. The winners will also get a free copy of the book!


So come on, hit me with your best shot! (Or the scariest thing that ever happened to you...in this case. Shut up. You know what I mean. It's a metaphor)

Deadline is September 1st 2018. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Sweetmeats, Dark Appetites: A Christmas Horror Story




I received a letter in the mail.

A bright crimson envelope with sparkles, that when held a certain way, looked like it was covered with wet blood. A red Santa hat sticker held it closed. No return address. My name was written on it in fancy scrawling cursive letters.

Inside, a letter on crude textured hand-made paper with crushed flowers, linen, and plant fibers.

Dear Miss Anna Gormleigh,
In light of current events that have been brought to my attention in regards to your recent unemployment, I should like to cordially invite you, and a guest of your choice, to join me for a grand Christmas feast at my esteemed estate in the hills. 
As you may well know, I am a widower of great import, with a habit of being charitable once a year, at the time of our Lord’s birth. By attending my exclusive soiree, you shall be given the chance to put your name in the lottery pot, the winner of which shall be endowed with great riches beyond imagination. This is a chance at a new life, with all your old worries gone and to be thought of no more. 
Please be there at 5 p.m. sharp, as it is a first come, first to be served basis. Be prompt. The doors and the front gate will be locked at 8:05 pm. Formal attire is mandatory. 
I do so look forward to meeting you in person. 
Respectfully yours, 
Hamlet Penderghast


Joining the letter was a fancy invitation on scarlet paper written in gold lettering with the address, date and time. My name was on it.

I stared at it. “Holy shit.”

I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a dream. No way this could be true. And yet, here it was. In my very hands.

Me. Receiving a letter to earn a life grant from THE Hamlet Penderghast? Owner of the multi-trillion dollar Rouge Hat Foundation?

My hands shook. My mind raced.

I held the letter to my face and smelled it. A faint hint of cloves and cinnamon under French vanilla, and a pleasant musky smell that I could not quite put my finger on.

This was it. The real deal.

It was true.

I heard about people receiving letters from him before, it was a life-changing event.

All my life, I had prayed for something like this to happen. Now, suddenly, all of my dreams were finally within my reach. All I had to do, was show up and charm the old man and convince him to make his riches, mine.

It was like trying to rig the lottery…I had to figure out a way to skew it in my favor.

Did that mean arriving early, or late?

What color dress to wear? How slutty should it be? Low back and plunging neckline, or both? Was he a perverted old man? Or celibate in his old age?

I trembled, nervous and excited. With sweaty palms, I called my closest (OK, not that close, but she was the hottest and most well-cultured woman I knew) friend Lisa, and told her the news.

“No. Freaking. Way.”

“Yup!” I texted her a picture of the letter.

“Holy shit! Anna! You’re in! You’re so in!”

“I know! I can’t believe it. Anyways, it says that I can bring a plus one, so…want to come with me?”

“Oh. Wow. Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather bring Steve?”

Steve, loser boyfriend, worst manners in the world.  

“No…he’s got family and is going to be out of town. I’d rather not bug him, just in case things don’t work out. He takes things hard if he gets his hopes up too much.”

“Oh…I see. OK. Sure. I’ll go with you. It’ll be a night to remember!”

“Great! I’ll pick you up at 4 p.m.”

I hung up and hummed the annoying new Christmas pop song on the radio. “Santa is Hungry for Your Love” as I dug through my closet.

I had two weeks until the big night, but I wanted to be 100% ready beforehand.

I got my nails and hair done, blew through a good chunk of my savings dolling myself up. But, like Lisa said, this was the biggest night of my life. It was worth it.

The stress and sleepless nights and debt collectors calling me at all hours, it would all be over soon.

Soon, I was going to have my day and never have want for anything ever again.

The weeks rushed by in a whirlwind. I was giddy, so excited that I barely ate--telling myself that I’d eat a ton at the dinner, imagining all the fancy rich people foods on such elegant spread in a dining hall; complete with dogs by the fireplace, fire crackling happily as we sipped on spiced wine and nibbled on sugared fruits, sweetmeats, and pies, and a rack of lamb, and Oh my God I was so hungry.

Not just for food.

I was hungry for a new life. A new start. A life free from poverty and Ramen noodles and eggs and powdered milk every day.

So. Very. Hungry.

I was curling my hair, imagining a feast for a kind and accidentally touched the hot iron.

“Shit!” I dropped it and it fell to the floor. I spread my bare feet in panic before they touched it. I picked up the iron, my finger throbbing from the pain and grit my teeth.

I was just touching up the job the hairdresser did earlier. I had a stray stubborn lock that refused to stay curled.

I sprayed it aggressively and stepped out of the bathroom to my bedroom, sucking gingerly on my burnt index finger. A red spot bloomed where my skin came into contact with the hot iron. It hurt, but I wasn't going to let it ruin my night.

I didn’t have time to get burn cream, so I just covered it with a clear band-aid and hoped for the best. Maybe he wouldn’t notice it. It hurt like a bitch, and I couldn't ignore it. It was distracting

I slipped on my burgundy red dress (sparkling with plunging neckline and bareback) and matching stiletto heels. I put on the wishbone necklace that Steve gave me for good luck a year ago when I got my last job- the one that recently fired me with no notice, the bastards. The charm was gold with a pearl inlay. I had hoped that it would bring me luck this time, but maybe I had decided to wear it to have a part of Steve with me, if only in spirit.

I double-checked myself in the mirror and then grabbed my things and rushed out the door.

I picked up Lisa and we drove to the estate, both of us chatting up a storm, that is until we saw the looming mansion on the hill.

My mouth went dry. I was so nervous that suddenly I really had to pee.

“You OK?”

I laughed nervously. “Oh, I’m fine. It’s just…in the winter night, with the snow falling around it, it should be peaceful, like a storybook castle. But it looks more like an evil step-mother’s house from a fairy tale.”

“Yeah. It does. Probably just a trick of the light, right?”

“Sure.”

The gates were open, stone gargoyles on the concrete wall grinned viciously down at us. They looked like they would come alive and eat us at any moment.

Lisa shifted in her seat. “I thought it’d be more festive. But, there are no Christmas lights on the trees out front. Don’t rich people love that sort of thing?”

“I bet he just likes a more natural look in his yard. I bet you anything the interior is full of decorations like Santa threw up all over.”

She laughed and her face lit up, putting me at ease.

I found a place to park, thinking it odd that there was no valet, and we trudged up the path, the snow freshly paved, crunching under our dress shoes.

“I swear to God, I feel like I’m going to fall and twist my ankle.”

“If you do, you can sue his pants off for damages.”

“Anna!” she admonished, and we laughed and walked up the concrete steps. I rang the doorbell and checked the time on my watch. 4:50 p.m.

We were on time.

I glanced back and noticed car tire tracks leading around the back of the property.

Were we the first guests to arrive? Or not? What did the invitation say? First come, first served?

Shit.

We were late, after all.

A sour-faced butler opened the door and he inhaled through his nose loudly. “Yes?”

“Um… Hi. Hello, I’m Anna Gormleigh. Here’s my invitation. Lisa is my plus one.”

He too the invite slowly and looked at me. “Does Lisa have a surname?”

I blushed, embarrassed. Lisa stood closer to me and put a calming hand on my own.

“Lisa Hancock,” she said firmly. Thank God she came with me. I was so stressed, I couldn’t even think straight.

I looked away, hiding the tears welling up in my eyes. I rubbed my thumb against the bandaid I used to hide my burn and focused on the pain.

If my mascara ran now…fuck.

Calm down Anna. Calm down. It’s fine. It’s all going to be fine. Right?

“Courage,” Lisa whispered as the butler led us indoors.

We were hit with a wave of delicious scents, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, vanilla. They seemed to cover up a sickly sweet scent that I couldn’t quite place. The entrance way was white marble. A big brass fireplace with a fire happily snapping away greeted us as we stepped forward on the mirrored stone floor. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

A huge Christmas tree stood in the center of the foyer. It was sprayed with white flocking and covered in ornaments. Shreds of red tinsel hung were strung along it, that made it look like the tree limbs were weeping blood. The crimson bulbs stood out in a striking pattern of droplets of scarlet in white snow.

It was beautiful, and it made me hungry to see more.

The butler took our jackets and told us to wait a moment by the fire.

As soon as he left, Lisa turned to me, beaming.

“This place is gorgeous! Thank you so much for bringing me.”

I smiled. She was cute when she was excited. She was like a little girl at times, but in a good way.

“You’re welcome. God, I’m so nervous.”

“Don’t be. Just act like you belong here. Because if anyone deserves it, it’s you.”

“Oh stop, you’ll make me blush again.”

“So what if you do, with all this red around us, you’ll blend right in, right?”

I laughed and the huge double doors to our left opened. A woman in a French maid outfit stepped out and curtsied.

“Right this way, misses.”

“Misses?” Lisa whispered and we grinned at each other. It was like I was sixteen all over again and going to prom with the hottest senior boy at school.

Inside, there were a number of brown leather chairs in a half circle, all facing each other, and a smaller, less elegant fireplace roaring away, filling the room with warm yellow light.

It had gotten dark outside. The large windows had their long drapes pulled open, and all I could see was my reflection in them as I walked past I looked so…hungry.

A middle-aged hipster man in pressed jeans, trendy sweater, beard and man bun sat next to a plump woman in a rumpled dress that was one size too small for her. It showed off the fat rolls on her sides and I tried not to outwardly grimace at how tacky she looked. If this were a different scenario, I'd feel bad for her, but right now? I just saw her as someone to easily beat in the lottery.

On the opposite side of the half circle, an androgynous goth college kid, of which I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a guy, sat sideways with feet dangling off the side of the chair. The kid wore paint-spattered torn jeans, a faded metal band t-shirt, and a red knit winter hat. They were playing a game on their smart-phone and not paying attention to any of us. Perhaps he or she was the grandchild?

The hipster man adjusted his over-sized black-rimmed glasses and stood up to greet us with an outstretched hand.

“Hi! I’m Mike, this is my sister Lorraine.”

“Anna.”

“Lisa.”

We shook his hand. Lorraine didn’t stand to greet us. She just looked down her piggy nose at me and I could practically see the jealousy roll off of her in waves of heat.

She hated me already. Which was fine by me. I didn’t care for her either. In fact, the more she stared at me, the more my loathing for her grew, until I could barely contain my rage.

“Quite incredible to be here, isn't it?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure is,” I said through a forced smile.

My heart raced. I was furious. I dug my finger into the burn spot, making it hurt worse. If there wasn't a band-aid covering it, I would've cut open the skin with my thumbnail.

Bastards. How long have they been here? 

I wanted to kill them.

An image of my hand grabbing the fire poker and bashing their faces in flashed in my mind. I tried to shake it off, but I kept thinking about wanting to make them bleed.

How dare they? This was MY turn. My chance to change my life. Forever.

Not. Theirs.

They needed to die. And fast.

“Did you have trouble with driving up here in the snow?” he asked me.

“Oh, no. I’m used to it.”

Lisa sat down next to the goth kid and I saw a slight frown on her face.

“Where did you park?” Lisa asked.

“Out front. Why?”

“We didn’t see your car.”

“The valet moved it,” the college kid said, not looking up from their game. I saw limp hair under that red cap, it was greasy, almost wet looking, and for a brief second, I thought I saw blood. I blinked and looked at them again. No. Their scalp was not covered in blood.

I was just seeing things.

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Cinnamon,” the kid replied. Their voice, like their appearance, made it hard to determine what sex they were. So was their name, apparently.

“Oh, what a nice name.”

“Whatever.” Cinnamon stood up. “I’ll go tell Uncle Hamlet that you’re here. I don’t want to wait much longer. I’m starving.”

“Oh, OK,” I said.

When Cinnamon walked past I noticed that their teeth didn’t quite fit their mouth. Maybe too young for braces? I kept looking at their cranberry colored lips as they shuffled out of the room.

Mike cleared his throat. “Uh…I didn’t give my car keys to anyone. Cinnamon said that the valet moved my car, but that can't be possible.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

He dug them out of his pants pockets and held them up. “See? I still have my keys."

"That's weird." Please leave now. Just go. Don't come back. 

 "I’m going to go look, just in case. Maybe you just didn’t see it out there? It’s a white car. It could’ve blended in with the snow bank in the dark.”

“I guess. I mean, I was so nervous driving up, it's possible that I could’ve missed it.” Yes. That's it. Go outside, and freeze to death. Get out of my way. 

His fat sister made an annoyed face.

“Oh, don’t be like that. I’ll be right back,” he said and left her there, with us.

“Anna, there were tire tracks in the snow leading behind the mansion,” Lisa said and went to look out the window. She cupped her hands around her eyes to block out some of the glare and peered outside.  “They’re gone now.”

“What? Really?” I peeked beside her. The snowfall had increased, a blanket of white filled the air and completely covered our footprints. It was as if we had never been there.

“Wow. I didn’t think it was snowing that hard. Guess it picked up after we got inside.”

“Yeah.”

A manservant walked in, looking bored, holding a tray of appetizers. Red pomegranate seeds on stark white beds of cheese and red apple slices. Simple, yet elegant.

When offered, I graciously picked one up and took a bite.

The pomegranate meat spurted satisfyingly in my mouth.

I wanted it to be Lorraine’s head. My mouth crunching down on her skull, making the blood and eye goop everywhere.

I swallowed the seed pit and coughed.

“Oh my God are you OK?” Lisa asked.

I nodded and spit out the seed. “Sorry,” I said, eyes watering. The seed had scraped the back of my throat. I felt…weird. My lips tingled, so did my fingers.

Am I allergic to pomegranate? 

I became light-headed. My lips and tongue itched and I could feel my gums like they were swelling up. My teeth ached. Maybe I chipped one on the pomegranate seed?

I took water that another waiter offered and chugged it down. It was very unladylike, but I really didn’t care at that point.

“You’re not supposed to eat the pit,” Lisa whispered.

“I know. Shut up.”

Lorraine pointed to my face. I fought back the urge to bite her pudgy piggy finger off. “You got some juice on your face.”

“Thanks.” I dabbed my lips with a napkin.

Lisa took my arm and whispered in my ear, “Stop glaring at her. She’s trying to be nice.”

“What? I’m not glaring at her.”

“You are. Cut it out. It looks bad.”

Part of me wanted to rip my arm away or break Lisa’s fingers. I wondered what it would feel like, sinking my teeth into the flesh of her tender digits.

The thought should’ve startled me, but it didn’t.

My hands grew sweaty and the band-aid on my finger came loose, so I took it off, and stared when I saw that the burn was suddenly gone.

Had I imagined it? Or did it just heal, somehow?

What was going on here?

Suddenly I was acutely aware of how quiet the house was. Aside from the sound of snow plinking against the windows, and Lorraine breathing loudly through her nose, there was no other sound to be heard.

I looked for one of the wait staff, to ask for some more water, and I couldn't find them. The wait staff had just…disappeared. I saw them standing in the doorway one minute and the next, it was as though they had never existed, to begin with.

Odd that.

I rubbed my top gums with a finger. Why did they hurt so much? They definitely were swollen.

“Are you all right?” Lisa whispered.

“I think I might be allergic to pomegranate.”

“Oh no. I think I might have some antihistamine in my purse. Let me go check.”

“OK.”

Lorraine waddled to the window and stared out, squinted her piggy eyes. “What do you think happened to our car? We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere. Who would steal it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you should go find Michael and see if he figured out what happened.”

“Good idea,” she said and snatched up her purse and heavily stomped out of the room.

I sighed in relief. Maybe she’d get lost and find herself locked in a closet or something. Anything to get her out of the run for the money.

Her footsteps faded as she tromped down the winding hallway, looking for her brother.

"They have to be in here somewhere," Lisa muttered as she dug in her purse.

I looked pleadingly at her, feeling my gums swell so much that I thought they’d bulge my teeth out of my mouth.

She gave me an apologetic look. “I thought I brought some with me, but I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

“Maybe the host has some. Old people often have huge medicine cabinets, right?”

“I hope so. If not, I can always run out and get some for you. I mean, it’d be better for your guest to leave, than for you to go. This is such an important night for you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Hun, your lips are swelling up. I think it would be for the best. I’d rather go and risk the snow, than end up sitting with you in the emergency room.”

“You’re right. Here, take my car keys. I’m insured so don’t worry if something happens.”

“OK.” She took them, hung her purse on her slim shoulder and left to go find her jacket.

I sat down by the fire and tried to calm myself down. I had an icy pit growing in my stomach. I was nervous, my chest felt tight.

Then. I noticed it.

An aroma.

Something smelled good. I hadn’t noticed it before.

What was it?

Apples. Cloves. Nutmeg. Raisins. Currants. Candied Citrus…Mincemeat pie? Maybe?

My stomach growled.

Maybe I needed to eat more? It would calm my nerves.

I just needed to stay away from the pomegranate. I went to go look for where the delicious food was displayed and there was a bang of a door, followed by a thump, and a long heavy dragging sound.

“What the hell was that?”

I poked my head out the door and froze. A streak of wet red paint ran across the foyer to a door on the opposite side of the hall.

No wait...that couldn't be paint. It smelled like spiced wine and gingerbread cookies.

As I stepped closer to investigate the wet paint, the wind picked up and began to howl outside, throwing snow up against the front of the house. It was turning into a blizzard.

We might be stuck here until morning when the snow plows cleared the road.

“Hey!” Lorraine called out and I looked down the hallway at her. She looked very worried, on the verge of tears. “Do you know where the help went off to? I can’t find anyone.”

“No, I--”

“What’s that on the floor? Is that blood? It is! That's blood! Oh my God! Mikey? Mike? Where are you?” she shouted and ran towards the door that the paint streak led to.

Just then, Cinnamon slammed the door open and smacked Lorraine square in the face. She slipped in the paint and fell, cracking her head hard on the marble floor.

“Oh. Shit,” Cinnamon said and kneeled by her. I saw him or her (I still wasn't sure) tuck something metallic and sharp looking in their pants pocket. “Help me, will you?” they asked and looked at me.

“Is she dead?”

“Not yet. Why? You want her dead?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

“Well, then. Help me drag her in here and we’ll make that happen.”

"All right."

I was giddy, like a kid in a candy shop. Here was the competition, dropping like flies.

I helped the androgynous Cinnamon, who, upon closer inspection had no Adam’s Apple, and I realized that she was a young woman. She was a Goth girl who could very easily pass for a boy.

I helped her pick up Lorraine and carry her into the room we were staying in.

“Let's put her down on the couch. We’ll take care of her body in a little bit.”

“Sure.”

Someone stepped into the room and I turned, expecting to see Lisa, but instead, standing in the doorway was a tall, sophisticated elderly gentleman in a burgundy red suit and tie, with a jaunty fur-lined Santa hat covering white hair that had yellowed with age.

He had an air of elegance about him. He didn’t appear fragile or weak, as one would expect of someone his age. He stood straight up, as though he had a backbone made of steel.

“Ah. Uncle Ham. Sorry, I was just trying to clean things up, as you asked, but I appear to have made more of a mess of things.”

“Not to worry, young Cinnamon. These things happen.”

“Lorraine slipped in the hallway and hit her head,” I said and Cinnamon’s eyes flicked my way. A sly smile curved up a corner of her mouth and she nodded in approval.

“I can see that,” Penderghast said, a glint of malice in his black licorice eyes. He smelled of candied apples. My mouth watered at the taste in the air.

So hungry. I really should’ve eaten something before we left.

Penderghast stepped over to where Lorraine lay like a beached whale, her eyes glazed over in a daze. She had to have a concussion.

“Michael, I have to find Michael,” she blubbered.

“Oh? Would you like to join him? He’s in the other room. I…ran into him as he stepped out to inquire about your vehicle. Rest assured, your car is fine,” he said and smiled.

I stared at him. Hamlet’s mouth had thick bright red gums. His lips barely closed down over his huge pointed shark's teeth. They were cracked in places like they had chipped from being filed into triangles.

I ran my tongue over my own teeth.

What would it feel like, for mine to be that sharp? Would I bite off my own tongue by accident? What could they bite through?

“Oh, good,” Lorraine said, “Take me to my brother. I want to go home now.”

“Of course,” he said and put out a hand, helping her to her feet. She wobbled and barely walked in a straight line as he escorted her out. His tall form easily held up her tubby body. I was impressed by his strength.

I wanted to be like that. Strong, lean, all muscle and jaws and teeth. The ultimate predator of humanity.

Penderghast glanced back at me and winked as the door swung shut. It made my heart leap in my chest.

Cinnamon sighed. “I’ll be right back. Gonna clean up the floor before the blood sets.”

“Sure,” I said taken aback.

Blood? I thought that was paint. It certainly didn't smell like blood to me.

After a few moments, Lisa slipped into the room, startling me.

“Anna,” she hissed, handing me my jacket and hurriedly put on her own. “Come on. We have to get out of here.”

I stood there for a moment, and then tossed my jacket over the couch arm. “I’m not going anywhere. I belong here.”

“Are you serious? This place is fucked up! Didn't you see the blood?"

"Blood? No. That was paint."

Lisa gave me a look like she wanted to smack me. "You're crazy. That was blood. Mike's blood. Cinnamon hit him with something. I saw her drag him into the side room. These people, they aren’t who you think they are.”

“What the hell would you know? I didn’t have to invite you, you know. I could’ve asked someone else.”

“I know, and as your friend, I am telling you, we need to get out of here before they kill us too.”

“Stop over-reacting. It’s fine. I’m not going to throw away this opportunity. It is going to change my life. Forever.”

“What are you talking about? I thought you were having an allergic reaction. I thought you wanted to go get medical attention. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Nothing. I’m fine now. Never felt better.”

“OK, fine. But, we need to leave. Now. Before they get rid of our car too.”

“You mean my car.”

“Yes. So come on!” She tried to pull me by the arm and I dug my heels in and didn’t budge. “Anna. Please! Let’s go!”

“No.”

“Did you see their teeth?”

“Yes and?”

“What uber rich person doesn’t have perfect teeth? Their dentists all know them on a first name basis.”

“Maybe it’s a genetic condition. Maybe they aren’t shallow and don’t worry about how their mouths look. Ever think of that?”

“Anna, I’m trying to save your life! Now come on!” she grabbed my jacket and yanked me towards the front entrance.

“Stop.”

“No. We’re leaving. Before they kill us too.”

I grabbed the door frame and stopped walking. She stumbled forward and glared at me.

“What is your problem?”

Anger flared in me.

How dare she ruin this for me. I waited my whole life for an opportunity like this and here she wanted to run home like a little girl.

I was grinding my teeth. I didn’t notice until I bit down and my teeth sliced through it, the tip of my tongue came clean off. I winced and blood quickly filled my mouth. It tasted like sweet plum wine. My stomach growled and I swallowed. It was delicious.

Lisa stared at me in horror. “Oh. My. God. Did you just…did you just bite off the tip of your tongue and eat it?”

“Yes. It tasted really good,” I said, my blood dribbling down my chin.

“Oh fuck this shit,” she said and ran off towards the front door. It wouldn’t open. She made a growl of frustration and ran the other way, past me, towards the back of the building. “I’m leaving. Get a cab to drive you home,” she shouted back at me.

“Oh…you’re not going anywhere,” I whispered and chuckled. This was going to be fun.

I saw that Cinnamon left the door open to the room where the "blood" streak trailed into.

I walked over and inside, I saw a huge life-sized canvas standing. A ghastly painting of innards and intestine strung upon a Christmas tree. It was oddly pretty and grotesque at the same time.

Next to it was a metal table, with a now naked Michael lay. He was pale. Not breathing. Dead.
His arms hung off the sides, long cuts ran down the undersides, his hands in buckets where his blood was draining. I was hit with an overwhelming scent of mint and fresh squeezed orange juice, mixed with cloves and nutmeg.

My tongue stopped bleeding, it tingled and itched horribly and in an instant, I felt it grow back. I loved it. Wondered how many times I could bite off the end and eat it before it stopped growing back.

Cinnamon stood on the far side of the table and was cutting off patches of skin from his thigh.

“Hairy bastard, isn't’ he?” she asked and grinned. Her teeth, serrated, chunky, like a jumble of shark’s teeth, over-filled her mouth.

“He is.”

“Want some?” she asked and motioned to the glistening bundle of muscle that she had uncovered on his leg. “It’s like well-seasoned pork tenderloin. He tastes really good.”

I took a deep breath in. Heat filled my belly and crawled down to my crotch, where it left me tingling and wet. It surprised me. This feeling of intense arousal. I was so hungry. For food. For sex. For life. I wanted to eat him. I wanted to eat all of him, and keep eating until I was so stuffed that I couldn't even move.

“Yes. Yes,. I do,” I said, my heart pounding, as my greedy hunger took over all of my senses.

"Oh? Looks like you want to do more than that, sweet cheeks."

"I want to rub his minty citrus blood all over me and bath in it while I eat him," I said and ran my hands over my tits and squeezed them hard.

“Hot damn! He was right! You ARE one of us!”

“One of what?” I asked and slowly stepped up to the table.

“A redcap. Uncle finds us and adopts us into the family. We’re cousins, of a sort, you and I.”

“Does this mean that I get the money?”

“Honey, you get that, and more. Much, much more,” she handed me a thick quivering cord of dark red meat from Mike’s thigh. I took it and licked my lips. It smelled so sweet, like Christmas cookies. Not savory at all. Definitely not like pork loin, like she had said.

“Why does it smell like that?” I asked.

“Like what, my dear?”

I jumped. Penderghast was in the room. Somehow, he had snuck up on us.

“Like spiced wine and apples and oranges. Like Christmas cookies and spiked eggnog,” I said. "Cinnamon said he tasted like pork loin, but I don't smell that at all on his flesh."

He grinned and stepped over. I saw that his long-fingered hands were slicked with blood.

“Because, my dear Anna, you aren’t human. Not anymore. Not since you stepped foot in here and ate the pomegranate.”

I frowned. “What?”

I knew that I should be scared, but I wasn’t. I was thrilled. Excited, sexually aroused. Everything was warm and pulsing in me. I never felt more alive in my life.

“Once you eat fairy food, you can never leave. Those who remain human, become our meals. Those who change, who transform into their true gluttonous natures, like you, and become family.

“You inherited the fairy magic. Congratulations."

"Fairy? Magic? I don't quite understand."

"You felt it, the minute you bit down on the pomegranate, didn't you? That hot, tingling that made your gums bulge and teeth grow?"

"Yes."

"Well, once a year, on Christmas Eve, I can grant riches and immortality to one lucky person. If their true natures matches my own dark appetites, they become like me. And my dear, the lucky winner of the lottery this year, was you,” he said and lifted my chin with a bloody hand. It smelled like strawberry shortcake. My stomach growled. “You want to lick the blood off, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You may if you like.”

“Thank you, Uncle,” I said and slowly licked and sucked the blood off. Sighing and closing my eyes as I swallowed. “Yummy.”

“Does Lisa taste delicious?”

“Yes. Oh God, yes.”

“Want to eat her. All of her?”

“I do.”

He grinned. “Very well. Eat your appetizer, first."

"Appetizer?"

"Finish up what you hold in your eager hands, and we’ll move to the dining room for the main course.”

I glanced down at the slab of muscle in my hands. Meat. Sweet, sweet meat. I hungrily tore into it, blood dripping down my chin and plopping on my shoes and the floor as I chewed. It had the pleasant texture of rare steak but tasted like mincemeat pie. It settled warmly in my stomach, like a hot wine.

Penderghast nodded approvingly and then gently escorted me to the dining area. Lorraine and Lisa were cut open on the long table. Heads cut off and placed on the fireplace mantle with apples in their mouths.

It made my heart leap with joy. We were going to eat my friend. Finally, she’d be useful for something.

Cinnamon came in and started pulling out their intestines, dragging them along the floor and hanging them about the room like garland.

“Your cousin Cinnamon has great taste in interior decor, don’t you think?”

I smiled. “She does.”

“Heart, or liver first?”

“Liver. Please,” I said and sat down in front of Lisa’s butchered body.

Penderghast placed her large, slippery, wet liver on my plate and motioned for me to eat.

I dug right in. She tasted so good. Like caramel apple cheesecake. I couldn’t get enough of it.

The more I ate, the more I wanted. Even after gorging myself on her flesh, my stomach felt empty.

Sighing I sat back and licked the gore off my hands.

“Still hungry?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “Everything has a price. My gifts you to, their price is eternal hunger. It will never cease. But, you shall grow accustomed to it, in time.”

“Oh. Really?”

“Yes. It’s a fair trade-off though, don’t you think?”

“How is that?”

“You get to inherit my riches, you never have need or want for anything ever again. All you have to do is eat and eat and eat to your heart’s content and never grow fat. And next year, you shall go out and invite four more humans to the feast. How does that sound?”

“It sounds delicious.”

He stood behind me and reached down and hugged me like a favored child. “Merry Christmas, Anise Seed.”

“Merry Christmas Uncle Ham.”

He laughed and I laughed and we ate the rest of my friend. She was the best thing I ever had for the holidays.

There’s only 365 more days until the next Christmas Feast. And I’m so very, very hungry.




Sunday, December 17, 2017

Top 5 Horror Films of 2017

It's been a while since I've done a movie review post. So I thought I'd tell you guys about my favorite top 5 horror films of 2017.

5. A Dark Song




"A Dark Song" is a one woman's journey into her own dark psyche to find answers after her young son is brutally killed.

A trip through hell, to reach a final conclusion that I didn't see coming, but it makes total sense. The visuals are neat, there are some really creepy things that happen in the house when shit hits the fan, and I can't recommend it enough. It heavily features religious iconography, so keep that in mind while you watch it. It's got a lot of Christian esotericism in it so themes of angels and demons run throughout.





4. The Void



A strange cult has trapped people in a hospital that is about to shut down. Tentacles and monsters soon attack, and the Sheriff is forced to work with two strangers to try to save his nurse wife from an unimaginable evil.

I reviewed "The Void" here. It makes the list because it's a fun creature feature that's a mix of "Silent Hill" and "Hellraiser," two franchises that I absolutely adore.

Also, it would've been higher on the list, if it HAD BETTER DAMN LIGHTING!





3. Stake Land II: The Stakelander




It's the vampire apocalypse. Martin is on a quest to find Mister, a legendary vampire hunter who saved his life in the first movie and trained him to fight and stay alive in desperate times.

"The Stakelander" has a wonderful western movie feel to it. Vamp cult comes to town, kills Martin's family, and sends him on a quest for revenge. Highly underrated. If you love vampires and vampire hunter stories, this is a must see!





2. Cult of Chucky





Chucky is, back, and this time he's picking off patients of a mental hospital, one by one, while he patiently waits for Andy to come for him.

I have to admit, I wasn't a fan of the last three Chucky films. So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed the hell out of "Cult of Chucky." All the wit, wry gallows humor, and clever viciousness of Chucky is back, in full swing, for one hell of a fun ride!





1. IT





An evil alien takes the visage of a creepy clown and terrorizes local kids of the Losers Club. They fight back, and find a way to win...for now.

To be honest, I wasn't sure if I was going to like "IT" when I saw the trailer.  It looked like another mainstream heartless horror remake.

I was wrong.

It has a lot of heart, and the kid actors are top notch! This one is at the top of my list because I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did everything right, including adding new things to the old familiar story. While nothing surprised me, and overall it didn't scare me, there were a few suspenseful scenes in it that were completely unique, and I LOVED it for that.

Plus, the kid playing little Georgie was AMAZING! And Bill Skarsgard is a wonderful Pennywise. Love his version of the monster. Can't wait to see the next movie.




Honorable mentions go to The Babysitter and Raw. 


"The Babysitter" is a fun little romp into horror slasher land. Evil babysitter worships Satan and wants to sacrifice the kid for power or whatever.

"Raw" is a good French thriller. I don't really consider "Raw" to be a horror film. More like a cannibal family drama. It's not as gross as people said it would be, but then again, maybe I have a stronger stomach for that sort of stuff than most people do lol

What about you? What were your favorite horror films that came out in 2017?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Top 5 Important Lessons I learned in 2017




Well, guys, we made it through another CRAZY year over at Casa de la Carnage. And boy, am I tired!

Too bad I can't hibernate. Sigh.

I don't know about you, but 2017 was pretty darn rough for me. And, like most periods of trial and tribulation, I learned some very valuable lessons.

Without further ado, here are my top 5 things I learned in 2017.


5. Social Media is Great for Self Promotion


Twitter is an invaluable promoting tool for an author. Prior to doing book ad blasts on my Twitter account, I was lucky to get 200 page views a day. This number increased up to 2,000 page views on average.

It would be higher, but I had some run-ins with the Google Search Engine police...meaning they kept changing the algorithm and started punishing people for putting links to their own books on their blogs. Not sure why, but they HATE it when you do that. They call it link stuffing. Been slapped on the wrist twice by Google for doing that now.

It's bullshit, but whatever.

4. Link Stuffing is Not Something You do to Turkeys for Thanksgiving


Say for instance you have a book published on multiple sites, and you decide to share ALL THE LINKS in a post so that people know where to find them, and on what sites they show up. That will get your search results rank lowered. BIG TIME. I went from 2,000 page views to 100 page views overnight. OUCH! THAT HURTS.

So...from now on, no big list of links on the site to my books on Amazon etc. And if I do share a link to Amazon,  it has to have the rel=no follow attribute added to it.  You can read more about that here if you're interested.

3.  If Given the Proper Amount of Time, I Can Write up to 10,000 Words in One Day


Wait...what? Are you fucking serious?!

Yes. Yes, I am.

BUT!

Keep in mind, on average it takes me 1 hour to type 1,000 words. So, in order to write that much, I have to have my butt in the chair, with zero distractions, for 10 hours straight. Needless to say, that doesn't happen very often. But when it does, it's fucking glorious. Feels good too.

Leading up to that was several months of writing 4,000 words a day. I had to flex my writing muscles and build up their strength to achieve such feats. Will I ever do that again? Probably. Am I counting on every day being that fucking amazing? No. Definitely not. That's just setting myself up for failure, and I won't do that again.


2. If You Don't Give Yourself Permission to Write for Fun, You will Suffer Burnout 


This lesson was a tough one to learn.

Writer's block, physical and mental fatigue, frustration, feelings of being useless and a failure, all go hand-in-hand with writer's burnout.

Burnout can happen in a myriad of ways.

I suffered it back in June and it took me 4 months to break out of it.

I was pushing myself too hard, and putting way too much emphasis on how much my books were selling (and how little money they were making) and not enough emphasis on how much I enjoyed my work.

That combined with absolutely zero emotional support from the people I lived with, made it pretty damn hard to get up and be eager to start working on my next book. Or free serial for that matter.

It sucked. HARD. And not in the good way. We're talking vacuum cleaner, not sexy kinky sucking.

All that dirt and crap from the stress of not reaching unrealistic sales goals right off the bat got stuck in my head and made a complete mess of me. I had to fight tooth and nail to get my headspace cleaned up and back in working order.

And once I did that (after summer and fall had passed) I realized that I had unrealistic expectations and that they caused me to stop enjoying what I was doing, and that is why I had the worst writer's block I have ever suffered from.

Here's something "they" won't tell you: 

When you first start out as an author, your books won't sell that much. That's just a fact. But every time you put out a new book, the sales numbers increase. Sales for your other books will raise as well.

I know a good number of fellow authors that gave up because their first book didn't sell for shit.
I'm talking making less than $20 in a month type of shit sales here. That hurts. It hurts your bank account and your ego.

Until you have three books up, don't pay for advertising, and don't expect your books to sell well. Because people buy in bulk. If they find a new author they're interested in, they'll buy all the books that they've put out.

Just keep that in mind, and don't ever stop working on your next project just because you aren't selling books. KEEP ON KEEPING ON my friends.


1. Don't Quit. Ever.


If you're a creative type, like me, it's easy to get discouraged. Perfectionism, focusing low sales numbers during the summer (when there is always a lull in sales- you can look it up. I know I had to, in order to find out what the best months for book sales were during the year),  and family members telling you to give up your craft and go get a "safe job" in a different field all lead to INTENSE PRESSURE THAT THREATENS TO CAVE IN YOUR SKULL.

Creativity jumps head-first out the top story window and plummets to its death, splatting on the pavement in a streak of red gore and shattered bone.

You're left sitting at your desk, staring at a blank Word program screen, watching the cursor blink and spacing out, before the frustrated tears start to fall and blur your vision. (Did I mention that this year was fucking hard? Because it really, really was.)


And then I saw this video and everything started to click into place. 






Yes, I know it sounds like self-help guru bullshit. But, it's not. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE!

Essentially, whenever you have zero motivation, like you feel like giving up and shooting your brains out for instance, (That's hyperbole. I was not suicidal, but I was damn near close to becoming depressed.) you take a step back and count down from 5 to 1.

And in that short span of time, it makes your brain go to a screeching halt and stops the negative thinking. It helps you refocus your attention so that you can start tasks. Whatever they may be, if you don't feel like doing them, don't wait for the motivation to strike. DO IT NOW.


Take a deep breath, count down from 5 to 1, and GO DO YOUR SHIT.


I was so pleasantly surprised when I discovered that this actually works!

It is also very useful if you suffer from random anxiety attacks like I do. It cuts that shit off fast. It is probably THE MOST USEFUL BRAIN HACK I HAVE EVER COME ACROSS. Seriously.
Try it. You won't be disappointed.

With everything that I accomplished this year, (and really, I have accomplished a lot! I published two books, started another serial, was establishing my reader fan base here on my blog and on Twitter, and getting a lot of praise for my writing) I was frustrated. I felt useless and like I was a huge failure.

Then I saw that video. I watched it several times.

Things starting clicking into place and I realized, I can change everything that is wrong with my life. Very easily. I just needed to do it.

And that is what I have been doing. One step at a time. I've been figuring out what I can do to make my life better, and I'm doing it. Some days are easier than others, but I am committed to making positive, permanent change in my life.

I'm also eating better.

Yeah, I also learned this year that I am gluten intolerant. Not in the trendy hipster way, but in the "oh shit this is fucking up my stomach and intestines" kind of way whenever I eat wheat. Like, the pain and bloating and other unsalacious things I won't mention that go along with Celiac disease kind of way. Of which,  also causes depression and a whole bunch of other nasty things if it is ignored. There's no cure for Celiac. There's no pill to make the symptoms better. The only thing to do is to not eat wheat, barley, rye, or any of their by-products.

So I am now on a low carb diet, sans gluten of any kind. And I FEEL BETTER! Mentally, and physically. And it's nice.


What do I anticipate will happen in 2018? 

I am going to work smarter, not harder.

I've started using this free app called HabitHub. It lets me track when I do certain tasks and gives me reminders that I can set during the day, to ensure that I finish them. It gives me a visual, a chain of finished events that I have done over the week. The goal is to get that chain longer and longer until I am just so damn proud of myself that I brag about it on social media.

The plan is to establish a new writing routine that gets my mind set up to habitually want to write every day. I did it before, back in 2009 when I first started doing technical writing for sites, so I know that I can do it again. And I will.

I've crunched the numbers (because I'm a HUGE PLANNER GAL) and figured out how much I need to write, on a daily basis, to get everything I want to do, done. This includes paid technical writing while I get my fiction writing career off the ground.

Doing paid writing work for websites also takes the pressure off of me, so that I can finally enjoy writing fiction again.

For every hour I do technical writing, I will do one hour of writing for fun. And naturally, for me, writing for fun involves a good amount of blood and suffering for my characters. Mwahahaha!

Also, I decided that if my books sell significant amounts next year, great! If not, I won't be crying about it. I'll just keep plugging away until I reach my sales goals and can scale back the technical writing side of things.

And finally, I am going to help my husband and lift him up so that he gets a better paying job. This will also take pressure off of me and will help us get a new house. Because sooner or later (hopefully sooner) we're going to be starting a family. I am looking forward to that.

How about you?

How was 2017 for you?

Do you have any goals for the new year?

I'd love to hear from you!

-Cassie





Thursday, November 9, 2017

Three Thieves of Night Part 7: Golgotha the Vampire City of Skulls



I woke up just in time to see the last sunrise we’d witness for three months.

It was like something inside my head clicked on, and I was wide awake. Soon I found myself standing at the back window of the last train car, watching the sun come up.

I took off the scarf that Mary had wrapped my bad arm in and absentmindedly rolled it into a ball as I watched the sky blush red and orange. The sun tinted the snow clouds pink, and I found myself wondering when I would be able to see it again.

I was deep in thought when someone walked up behind me and slapped their hands on my shoulders. I jumped and whirled to see Mary standing there, smirking at me with an unlit cigarette in her mouth.

“Morning,” she said.

“Very funny.”

“What are you doing back here?”

“Watching the sunrise.”

“Why?”

“So that I have it in my head as a pretty picture to remember when things get bleak,” I said and tapped my temple with a finger.

“That’s…rather romantic of you.”

I shrugged. “I’m weird like that. I’ll see something and memorize every detail. I like to make a permanent picture of something in my mind that I go back to as needed. It's gotten me through some tough times in the past. So, I keep doing it. Just in case.”

“Really?” She sounded genuinely surprised.

“Yep. Maps, paintings, people’s faces, crime scenes, you name it. It’s all stored in here.”

“I had no idea you were brilliant like that. You are just full of surprises, aren’t you Mr. Whelan?”

“I reckon so.”

“You gonna be back here a while?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll fetch you when the dining car puts out breakfast.”

“Thanks.”

I listened to her boot steps as she walked away, and made a mental note of her casual cadence. There was an easy stride to her steps today. She wasn’t stepping heavy and angry, like she usually did, slapping her feet down like she was punishing the world and hitting it with each step.

She sounded…happy. Almost.

Could it be because we were that much closer to getting her guns back? Or, maybe she was happy because she was about to run into a place where she could go wild and relish in the carnage of a good bloodbath of evil incarnate?

I wasn't quite sure. Maybe it was both.

Once we had traveled far enough away that the rising sun disappeared over the horizon and left us in total darkness of the Night Lands, I returned to the room to find Tristan melting down the silver nuggets that John left us. He was smelting them and pouring them into bullet molds, of which would make the tips for our revolver ammo.

“Good morning,” he muttered, not looking up from what he was doing.

“Morning. Uh…how’s your throat doing?”

“Fine,” he said in a short clipped tone.

“You're not mad at me about last night, are you? I mean…it really wasn’t me that choked you. You know that right?”

“Yes. I know."

"Then what's with the attitude?"

 "I just don’t want to burn myself. Stop distracting me.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

I grabbed some of the silver bullet tips that had finished cooling and started crimping the primed casings on.

We got into a nice rhythm of assembly before Mary slammed open the door to our room and walked in with a pot of coffee and some fresh bread.

The smell hit me like a sledgehammer, and I realized just how hungry I was.

“Your stomach is growling,” Tristan said and I grinned at him while Mary sat down next to me and inspected our work.

She picked up one I had just set down and made a face, the corner her lips pulling to one side in disapproval.

“I guess these will have to do,” she said, sounding slightly disappointed.

The tone of her voice didn't sit right with me. Hearing her say that caused a spark of anger to flash in my chest.

She was really starting to grate on my nerves.

"You disapprove?" Tristan asked.

"I've seen better work."

“Excuse me? I think we know how to make ammunition. We’ve been doing it for years now,” I said.

“Well, you’re making them crooked. Of course, and that would explain why you miss so damn much.”

“I don’t miss a target,” I said and snatched up a roll from the plate she brought in.

She smacked my hand. “Did I say those were for you?”

“No. But you got enough for three people. You set the plate down in the middle of the table, like it was for all of us.”

“Did I now?”

“You know what? Never mind. I don't feel like eating with you this morning. Honestly,” I swore under my breath and grabbed my long coat and hat. “Tristan, you hungry?”

“Yes. I'll join you. One moment,” he said and finished pouring the last of the smelted silver into the mold. He stood up and shot Mary a look.

She raised an eyebrow and poured herself a cup of coffee.  "What?"

"You didn't have to do that."

"Do what?"

"Be so rude to him."

I sighed, annoyed.  “Come on Montebalm. Clearly, the lady doesn’t wish to eat with us this morning.”

Tristan glanced at her and shook his head as he went to grab his coat and hat.

“What?” she asked.

“Don’t insult his handiwork. He is very diligent about things. Let a man have some pride.”

“I’ll consider it.”

He muttered something under his breath about nosy women and grabbed his coat and joined me.

We walked through the different train cars until we reached the dining area, which held cramped tables and chairs. White tablecloths, linen napkins lined with silverware, it was a fancy set up.

We found an unoccupied table and sat down. I put my hat on the chair next to me and Tristan sighed and took off his coat. He looked awfully tired.

“Didn’t sleep well?”

“No. You?”

“Not really. Sorry if I woke you.”

“It’s fine. I kept waking up at every little sound anyway. Once you got up I figured there was no point laying in bed anymore and started getting things ready."

"I guess we're both getting anxious. I know I'm ready to find John and get MAry's guns back. If anything, just so that she no longer has an excuse to bother me so damn much."

He chuckled softly and shook his head.

"What?"

"You two. You go together like oil and water."

"I know. Don't remind me."

"So, where did you go?”

“The end of the cars to watch the sunrise.”

“It’s so dark out here though.”

“In the distance in the east you can see it, well, you could at any rate. I caught what was most likely the last one we’ll be seeing for a time.”

A morose-looking thin fellow in a waiter’s outfit stepped over to our table, gave us piping hot coffee and took our orders. He was close-lipped and talked in clipped short words.

I was dying to ask him about his job. I wanted to know how they handled cooking large orders in a train kitchen. But, I knew if I tried, I wouldn't get much information out of him, so I let it go.

“You showed restraint. I’m impressed,” Tristan said.

"He didn't look like he was in the mood to chat."

"He wasn't. He's half awake. Poor man."

"I know what that's like."

My coffee was a little too hot to drink at the moment, so I wrapped my hands around my cup and warmed them up.

There were a few others in there with us. None of them had healthy complexions. Most were deathly pale and looked like they were headed towards a funeral.

Maybe they were…in more way than one.

I must’ve made a face because Tristan looked at me curiously. “What?”

“Nothing. Just, taking in the scenery.”

He sighed and rubbed his lower ribs with a wince.

“How are you doing, really?”

“I’ve been better. Everything hurts today, to be honest.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Rourke…where we’re going, and with your injury, it could cause a lot of problems.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, think about it. It’s not healing. You bled out pretty bad last night. Who’s to say that won’t keep happening? You’ll be leaving a rather blatant trail in our wake.”

“And what am I supposed to do about it? I couldn’t let you go after him alone. That’d be suicide.”

“I know, I just…we should be extremely cautious. With everything we’re dealing with, I have a feeling Mary could make our situation one hundred times worse than it already is.”

“That, I completely agree with. You notice how happy she is this morning? It’s creeping me out.”

“Yes. I feel the same way. When she smiles it makes my skin crawl.”

“You too? I thought it was just me, like I was over-reacting or something.”

“No. It’s not just you. When I told you that she had an aura of death, I meant it,” he said in hushed tones, not wanting to draw attention to us.

“Understood,” I sighed and rubbed my shoulder against the back of my chair.

My back prickled like I had rolled around in nettles for an hour. And, naturally, the minute I started to think about it, it started to hurt worse. And the more it hurt, the more it itched.

It was driving me crazy.

I couldn't ignore it anymore. I gritted my teeth and scratched it against the back of my chair and winced as a sharp jolt of pain shot through me.

“Rourke?”

“Ow.”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I’m not bleeding through my shirt am I?” I asked and turned so he could look.

“No.”

“Good. That would be embarrassing to do in a dining car.”

A faint smile danced on his lips. “You are a ridiculous man Mr. Whelan.”

“Why, thank you, kind sir.”

“So, what do you think of John's letter?” he asked, changing the subject. Maybe he thought if he could take my mind off of it, it wouldn't hurt so damn much.

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot about that. Thanks for reminding me.”

I unfolded John’s cryptic letter and took out a small piece of drawing charcoal. I rubbed it over the indentations, to reveal parts of words, half letters and odd symbols scrawled across the page. They had been written on a separate piece of paper that he had pressed down deliberately hard on while writing, to leave the indentations behind.

It was a secret message, left for me to find and decipher. What it was, however, I was not quite sure just yet.

"What does it say?"

"No clue. I'm missing something. Look, only parts of letters are showing up. It's a cipher of some kind."

"John must not have been someplace where he could trust people when he wrote that."

"You think?"

"Hey. Don't be rude to me. I am not the one you are mad at."

"Sorry. My back, it's making me irritable."

"I've noticed. Your usual sense of humor is quite lacking this morning."

"I'm that bad huh?"

"Yes."

"Well, then, a thousand apologies my friend. And thank you for being so patient with me."

"You're welcome."

Just as I got done with the charcoal rubbing, our food came.

“Ah, thank you,” I said to the man who probably hadn’t smiled in over a decade. The waiter nodded and walked away. “Such great staff they have here. So friendly.”

“You ever stop to consider that perhaps he is not a morning person?”

“Or a day person, or a night person…or a person at all! Perhaps he’s just an illusion, and this food isn’t even real.”

Tristan gave me an annoyed look and refilled his coffee cup. “Shut up.”

“What? You said that I had lost my sense of humor. I'm just trying to make up for it now.”

“It is far too early for you to be making jokes such as that.”

“So…when will be a good time then?”

“How about, never o’clock?”

“Got it.”

He hid a smirk and I chuckled and looked at the letter. And then stared at it closer, and turned it this way and that. Held it up to the light coming from the lamp on the wall and sighed.

“What is it?”

“I have no idea.”

The lettering on it was half-formed, crooked dashed lines ran across the page. Sometimes it formed strange symbols that looked vaguely like they were occult runes.  But what kind, I did not know.

I didn’t recognize it at all.

“Magic spell maybe?” I said and handed it to him. He was careful not to get his fingerprints on the charcoal rubbing as he glanced it over. “You know that language?”

“No, I don't recognize it all.” He handed it back to me. “Maybe Mary would?”

“I don't want her to see it. I don’t trust her."

"Neither do I. Her presence is very unsettling."

"Every time something happens, she threatens to kill us. And then not even five minutes later she does something to save our lives! I don't get it.”

“She's a tough nut to crack. I can’t tell if she is truly on our side, or not.”

“I think she’s on the side she’s always on. Her own.”

“Well, she does have the reputation for being one of the most vicious monster hunters in Creation. But I have never heard tell of her being duplicitous or betraying anyone.”

“Doesn’t mean that it doesn't happen. People she double crosses probably die. Wouldn’t be hard to keep that sort of thing quiet if all of your victims are dead.”

“Wouldn’t they come back as hungry ghosts?”

“Not if she consecrated the bodies. She is a saint after all.”

“Good point.”

I sighed.

“On the one hand, I’m glad she’s with us because every fiber of my being is screaming at me and telling me we’re going into a trap. But…on the other hand, all she does is make things worse and hit me. Like…all the time. On the same spot on my arm. I have a huge bruise there. She does it on purpose.”

“Maybe she likes you.”

“No. She doesn’t. She hates me. Said so herself last night.”

“Right…if she hates you so much, why does she go out of her way to help you?”

“I don’t know? Because she’s crazy?”

“Rourke. Mind your tongue.”

“I’m serious. She’s certifiable. A total nutter. I can’t believe that anyone would worship her, let alone want to be her friend. I mean, she physically threatens violence to someone on a regular basis and yet expects them to ride with her as though there’s nothing wrong. Who does that?”

“She does, obviously.”

“It’s bad enough that she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a city, but to be expected to be nice? Just because she’s pregnant? And then she gets mad when I am polite about it? I just can’t win with her. There’s no way she doesn’t hate me.”

“I think that perhaps you aren’t seeing the entire situation clearly because you are in a great deal of pain. You are under duress due to the nature of your wound.”

“Duress? You want duress, try being bait for a demon, and then having it attack you and bite the ever-loving hell out of you and then being blamed for it when it doesn’t outright kill you."

"Rourke, watch your tone."

"Why? I'm just telling the truth. And not only that, but she keeps putting guns up to the back of my head. If she liked me, she wouldn’t be so close to blowing my brains out, now would she?”

“Rourke!” Tristan hissed and glanced emphatically behind me.

Oh.

Shit.

Someone pulled the seat out from under me and I landed on my ass hard.

“Ow.”

“You were saying?” Mary asked. She was still holding the back of my chair.

I stood up, straightened my shirt, trying to regain some dignity. “I was saying that you are nuts, and rude, and a terrible woman who always hits me. That’s what I was saying.”

“Is that so?”

“You just yanked my chair out from under me. I think that’s a pretty damn good indication of your rudeness, don’t you?”

Tristan cleared his throat and I noticed that everyone was staring at us and I sighed.

“Sorry for causing a commotion here folks. I’ll go back to the room. With my breakfast,” I muttered and threw on my coat and hat and took my plate with me.

By the time I got there, my food was cold.

“Damn women. Always causing problems,” I muttered and choked down my slimy congealed eggs and chased it with a big swig of lukewarm coffee.

I couldn’t wait to find him so that we could get her guns back, and she could leave us in peace.

Well…no. That is not how that would happen either. She’d take them back and then try to kill him for stealing them. And then Tristan and I would have to hold John back because he would not hesitate to return violence against her, saint or no. It was a no-win situation, and I was stuck in the middle of it. As usual.

“Fucking hell,” I said and took out John’s letter and threw it on the table.

Sighing, I rubbed my hands down my face and glanced at the letter between my fingers, and that’s when I noticed it.

“Tricky bastard,” I said and folded the paper so that the symbols lined up to form letters and grabbed another piece of paper from my travel bag and started writing down what the note said.

The letter had to be folded this way and that to get all the lines to form words. He must’ve worked on it for several days, slowly making the indentations by drawing on a separate piece that he had laid over it.

I scratched my shoulder as I worked, having occasionally to stand up to rub the spot I couldn’t reach against the door frame.

For John to do this, he had to be under constant supervision. It reeked of paranoia and fear.

I was almost done transcribing the last line when Tristan walked into the train car.

“Hey,” I said and he didn’t reply.

I glanced at him, he looked annoyed.

He sat on the bed and glared at me.

“What?”

“You need to mind your tongue.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I know that this is very trying for you, but you aren’t the only one hurting here. We all have our burdens to bear.”

“What are you talking about? Mary is fine.”

“No. She is not.”

I made an annoyed sound and looked back at him, over my shoulder. “What now?”

“She made me pay for her meal.”

“Of course.”

“She also told me that she had come to find us because she had something for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. That and she said that she was going to be very polite to you at breakfast until she heard you bad mouthing her in public. Then she changed her mind.”

“Wonderful. Sorry man. I just…” Why did I say those things? I usually kept thoughts like that to myself. 

He waved it off. “Do not worry about it overmuch. She isn’t that mad. Just apologize to her when she returns and fix things between the two of you before we arrive at the station.”

“Fine. I can do that. But only because you asked.”

“Very well. Did you figure out the letter?”

“I think so. It’s still a bit odd, but, it looks like a set of directions. I think. Maybe.”

He sat next to me and when I reached back to scratch my shoulder he batted my hand away and scratched it for me.

I hissed in relief and sighed. “You are a beautiful man, you know that?”

“You’re welcome. What does it say?”

“Well--” I yelped in pain and jerked away from him as I felt my skin tear like the wound was splitting apart more.

“What? Did I hurt you?”

“No, no. It wasn’t you, it’s just this damn thing…I think the wound is growing.”

“Let me see.”

I took off my shirt and he removed the bandages and set them aside. They were soaked in fresh blood.

I could feel my blood slide down my back in rivulets. It made me shiver in disgust.

“It really hurts.”

“I can see that."

"Well?"

"The wound is getting bigger. The areas that split open when you hauled up me on Devil’s Pass? They’re about two inches longer now. Like someone took a knife to your back and cut the gaps wider.”

“Fuck.”

“Language,” he said.

“Sorry. I just…what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping the healing springs in Bethel would help. But they don’t seem to have done any bit of good for you. Not even the stitches could prevent it from opening wider”

“Damn it.”

There was a knock at the door and Mary stepped in.

I raised an eyebrow. “Wow. You knocked?”

“I didn’t wish to interrupt anything between the two of you.”

“There’s nothing going on between us,” I said sharply. “He’s just looking at my shoulder. You know, the one with the gaping wound in it? The one you couldn’t fix? That one.”

She frowned and stepped up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around roughly so that she could look.

“Sophia save you.”

“Yeah, I don’t think prayers are going to work here.”

“Shut up. I made something for you while you were sleeping, you idiot.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes,” she said and picked up a large roll of bandages from her bed. There was writing in red and black ink all over it. Holy symbols, some words I could read, others were in languages that were entirely foreign to me and just looked like squiggles and fancy wavy lines. “My angels suggested we try this. I haven’t made one in years. Well…more like in a few hundred years, but still, it should help you for a bit.”

“What does it do?” Tristan asked. He looked hesitant and worried.

“It won’t heal the wound, but it will stop it from getting worse. It will numb the pain and prevent it from bleeding or growing in size.”

“But?” I asked.

“Well, like most magic, there is a price to pay.”

“And with this one?” Tristan asked.

“Any damage that the wound would inflict on you, will be tripled once the spell wears off. It lasts for two days, after that, the pain will come on and will be intense because you’ll be experiencing an entire 48 hours of agony all at once. But…seeing as how we’re going into a vipers nest of vampires, I thought it a good idea to prevent your wound from bleeding. The minute they smell blood on us, we’re dead.”

“I know that.”

“Well…do you want it or not?”

“I guess.”

“Rourke, this is not a good idea. I find it highly inadvisable to do this.”

“I don't have a choice. How can we save John if we’re both injured and not in top form? We’re going into Golgotha. The Vampire city. This isn’t a city with an infestation, this is a city made for and run by, vampires. There’s a big difference.”

“I am aware. That is why I tried to stop John from going there, to begin with.”

“Well…I can’t have that damn demon getting in the way of things and taking me over when we’re in the middle of a fight with a vampire lord, now can I? That would mean instant death for me, and you, and Mary, and John, and whoever else gets drawn into this freaking mess. Right?”

He sighed. “Yes. I just…I don’t want to see you hurt any more than you already are. The thought of you suffering three-fold does not sit well with me. At all.”

“Duly noted.”

“Aw, you love him.”

“Shut. Up,” we both said in unison and she bit her lower lip and turned away, trying not to laugh.

“What’s so funny? Huh? Does my suffering amuse you?”

“What? No! I just…I think you two are cute together, that’s all.”

“What. Just what are you implying woman? Hm?”

She waved a hand. “It’s nothing. Ignore me.”

“That’s what I thought. So…how do these bandages work exactly?”

“Oh, I just slap them on and say the magic words to activate them. That’s all.”

“Wonderful. So, is this going to sting, or what?”

Mary glanced at me, the corners of her mouth twitched. She was hesitant to reply. I could tell.

“Well?” I said.

“It will hurt, but a brief moment, and then all pain will be gone.”

“And then?” Tristan asked.

“Then he has 48 hours. So we have to find John before the spell wears off.”

“What happens if it wears off before we find him?” he asked.

Tristan was worried. Hell, I was worried. But…the siren’s lure of no pain for a few days, it was calling me in sweet dulcet tones. I couldn't pass it up. Even if we weren't heading into a death trap, I'd say yes, just so that I could rest in peace for a time. I had been suffering with this constantly, for over a month now. It was just too much.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. The skin around the wound on my back prickled, twitched and started itching like crazy.

I  balled my fists, dug my nails into my palms.

It wasn’t stopping. It was getting worse by the day. That demon was taking over my body, bit by bit. Soon, the wound would grow to cover my whole back, and my right arm…I’d have no control over it. I’d have to cut it off, or maybe…I could just kill myself and get it over with.

My mind wandered to my holster, and the guns therein. I was barely conscious of it, of pulling my six-shooter out and holding it, running my fingers down the barrel.

Maybe, just maybe, I could just kill myself and get it over with. Would that demon take over my corpse? Would it matter? I mean, I’d be dead so…

“Whatever you are thinking, stop it. Now,” Tristan said in a low, hushed tone. He gripped my shoulders hard and I was then aware of the cold steel in my hands.

My gun. I was thinking of killing myself and I was holding my gun.

Shocked, I dropped it.

Mary kicked it away and stood before me, hands on her hips. She looked me dead in the eye and I froze.

“This isn’t a permanent solution, but, it’ll save your life. Hell, all of our lives, while we’re searching for John in that godforsaken city. The bleeding will stop. The pain will cease. The spell I wrote on these bandages will essentially stop time for your body. You will think clearly, and will see just how much you are suffering right now.”

“Isn’t that dangerous, in and of itself? It’s a quick fix, and well…I might become desperate enough to want you to do it again.”

“We’ll deal with that bridge when it’s time to cross it, Mr. Whelan.”

“Right.”

“The angels, they say that John can help you. I’m not sure how they know, but I trust them, so, you just need to keep it together long enough for me to cast this spell. Understand?”

I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes.

Was I that suicidal? Or was that thing seriously messing with me and trying to break down what remained of my mental defenses?

“Rourke? Can you hear me?” she asked.

I nodded and cleared my throat. “Yeah, I hear you. I’m just, so tired. It won’t stop. It hurts so much. It’s getting worse. Every day. And I’m sick of it. It's making me desperate.”

“I know.”

Tristan tightened his grip on my shoulders. I took a ragged breath.

“Promise me something, Tristan.”

“Anything,” he said softly.

“Promise me that you’ll let me go. If we try to stop this thing, this demon, and nothing works. And I mean, nothing, you’ll let me end it. A man can only take so much pain before it twists him, deep inside. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that thing to win.”

I heard it laugh, from my shadow on the floor, and goosebumps raised on my arms.

“Did you hear that?” I whispered.

“I did.”

“As did I,” Mary said and she slammed her booted foot down on my shadow, hard. I winced. “Did that hurt?”

“No. I just imagined what it would feel like for you to stomp my face.”

“I see.”

I tried to turn to face Tristan, but he wouldn’t let me.

“Tristan…”

“I’m sorry. I can’t give you my word on that. Forgive me.” His voice cracked with sorrow.

It was too much. It was just too much. For all of us. That demon, whatever it truly was, wasn’t just eating at me. It was devouring a part of him as well.

Mary was right. Because we had made a blood oath, the magic that bound us together by our fates, meant that we would all be affected by my curse.

Shit.

“Rourke,” Mary said gently. I looked up at her. “Come on. Let us ease your pain for a time, so you can rest, and think straight. You’ll need your wits about you, in Golgotha. You’re hardly yourself right now.”

“I hate to say this, but...she’s right. Let her help you. Please.”

I nodded, let him steer me over to the table bench and sit me down.

“Sit in front of him. Hold his hands down. Just in case.”

Tristan did as she told and I let him grip my hands tight. He was ashen with fear. He looked awful, to tell the truth. I didn’t notice just how poorly he was feeling until just then.

“Sophia, give me the strength to endure all things, in this life and the next. Let me always seek knowledge, until the very end of my days, so that I may be with you in your wisdom, forever, and always,” I prayed.

“Amen,” Tristan said.

Mary sat behind me and began unwinding the cloth bandages that she had painted angelic runes on, and started murmuring an incantation in a language long dead. It was a sussurance of syllables, shushes, rolling R’s and sharp K’s.

I shivered, and tried not to bolt, even though every fiber in my being started screaming at me to run.

Tristan held my hands so tight, my fingers began to lose circulation. But I didn’t let go or pull away.
I closed my eyes and kept praying to Sophia, the goddess of wisdom and light, while my skin crawled and my back seared with pain.

I was out of my mind with fear.

What would happen to me, once the spell wore off? How much would it hurt? Would I even survive getting hit with that much agony, all at once? Or would it be the death of me?

Would I even care at that point? If it killed me?

I didn’t know. And that fact alone scared the ever loving wits out of me.

I could feel the demon’s fear welling up inside of me, a mixture of unadulterated hate and rage, tinged with anxiety, like a wild animal that saw that it was about to be trapped and slaughtered.

An image flashed in my mind of a big wolf’s maw that was dripping with blood, its black fur matted with fresh gore.

I cried out, tried to pull away, but I was stuck fast. The demon wolf loomed closer, eyes glowing with bright green balefire from the very pits of hell itself.

“Soon,” it said with a vicious deep growl. “Your soul will be mine, mortal. And no one can stop me. No one.”

I felt it dig its razor-sharp claws into my back and I cried out in pain.

An ice-cold bandage pressed into my wound. It was followed by another, and another. And suddenly, the pain was gone.

I sat there, slumped in defeat, my forehead resting against Tristan’s muscular shoulder. It took a moment for it to register that I was leaning against him. My right arm went numb, and I felt my hand lessen its grip.

I sighed in relief.

“Better?” Mary asked.

“Yes. Thank you,” I whispered.

She kept wrapping the bandages, threading them around my shoulder and chest and then tied off the ends.

“Done,” she said and stepped away. She stood next to the potbelly stove and lit a cigarette.

Tristan said nothing, he let go of my hands and let me lean against him. He didn’t embrace me. He just sat there, with me.

He was so fond of me. It wasn’t healthy. I was a thief and a liar. And since I hated liars…I suppose that meant that I hated myself as well.

My back felt cool, it didn't hurt at all. my arm, the right arm that the demon kept possessing and controlling,  it was numb, my hand and arm both were tingling with pins and needles, like it had fallen asleep.

“Huh,” I said and sat up and rubbed my numb right arm.

“What?” he asked.

“My arm is asleep.”

“That’s because the magic in the bandages put the demon to spiritual sleep, and that is the main part of your body that it currently resides in."

“Good to know.”

I stretched, fully, for the first time in over a month, and yawned. I was tired, down to my bones. Dead tired.

“We have a few hours until we reach the station. Try to get some rest,” Tristan said. “Mary and I will finish making the silver bullets.”

“Sure.”

My head hit the pillow and I was out cold.

I slept like a log. It was a deep, healing sleep, and it was wonderful.

I woke up when I heard them arguing.

I yawned and rolled over to see them sitting across from one another on the floor of the train car. They were both drunk and playing cards.

“Stop cheating. It’s not ladylike.”

“I’m not. You’re just lousy at poker.”

“I am not. I know card games. And you are not as slick as you think you are.”

She pointed at him with a lit cigarette in her hand. “Maybe you’re the cheater.”

“Beg pardon?”

“You’re the psychic. You probably know exactly what is in my hand right now.”

“I would never use my powers for such an insignificant thing. Besides, they don’t work that way. They only show me when I, or someone I care about, is in danger.”

“Well, they would work like that, if you trained properly.”

“Shut your mouth woman, and deal the cards right, or I’ll deal them.”

I reached over the side of the bed and tapped him on the shoulder.

He was sitting on the floor with his back against our bed, Mary was leaning back against hers and shuffling the cards. A fire roared peacefully in the stove.

He looked back at me. “Did we wake you?”

“Nah. Just remembered something.”

“What?”

I slid down to the floor next to him. “I forgot to tell you, never play cards with her. She’s impossible to beat.”

“Mm,” he said.

“You want in? We have half an hour before we get to the station,” Mary said.

“Why are you both stinking drunk if we’re so close to getting there?”

“She started it,” Tristan said and Mary smirked.

“Don’t tell me…loser of a round takes a shot?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I leave you alone with her for a few hours and you get deep in your cups. Thanks a lot, Mary.”

“I aim to please.”

“Well…maybe instead, you should aim to keep on your best behavior instead? Ever think of that?”

“Impossible. I’m a trouble magnet.”

“You can say that again.”

“How are you feeling?” Tristan asked.

“Tired, but other than that, I feel great.”

He gave me a bleary-eyed look of disbelief.

“What? I do. Honest.”

“All right. If you say so.”

“I do. And I also think that perhaps you two should start sobering up and packing up the gear you took out to use while on the trip. We won’t have long now before we reach the station at the city gates. Once we get there, we’re going to have to stable the horses and get a map of that place. From what I’ve heard, it’s a like a freaking labyrinth, so getting from the city gates to the center is a pain in the ass, and with that map that John made, I’m going to need a reference to work from.”

Tristan smiled.

“What?”

“That’s the Rourke I’ve missed.”

“I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“I know. You just haven’t been yourself for a time. You’re sounding like your old self again.”

“Ah. Well…thank Mary for that, while you sober up.”

“Should’ve gotten some more coffee,” Mary muttered as we started packing up.

Not long after, the train arrived at the station.

It was completely dark out, even though it was mid-day. I found it eerie and disconcerting. Tristan kept looking around, nervously. Mary, on the other hand, went about her business as though this were just another stop on her journey.

We stabled our horses at the station, paying triple the rate the ensure that they’d be there on our way out.

Tristan paused as we went to leave and he tapped my shoulder.

“What?”

“Look.” He pointed and my heart skipped a beat. One of the long-term stables in the back held a dun mare, with a star on her forehead. There was no saddle, but a riding blanket hung over the side of the stable. It was dark red, with a black wolf in the center. The Granger family crest.

“Johnathan,” I said softly, and he nodded.

“He’s still here.”

“Or, he’s dead and paid to over-winter his horse and they haven’t bothered to sell it off yet,” Mary said and anger flared up in my chest.

I had to ball my hands into fists or I would’ve punched her. Hard.

“Watch. Your. Tone,” Tristan warned, a hand on his sword hilt. I noticed that he moved and put himself between the two of us, just in case I really lost my temper and took a swing at her. He was trying to protect me from myself.

She gave him a pointed look and stepped out of the barn.

“You all right?” he asked me.

I took a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah. She’s just…you know?”

“Yes. She may be a saint, however, she is blunt as hell and very rude. Mayhap that is why she has no true traveling companions. No one can stand her for more than a few hours at a time.”

“Got that right.”

“I must say, I’m not comfortable working with her Rourke.”

“Oh? Why?”

“I have an uneasy feeling. It’s like sitting across from a mountain lion. You know it is going to pounce and rip you to shreds, but you’re not sure just when it’s going to make its move.”

“Personally, I think she has a punchable face. But maybe that’s just me.”

His eyes widened in disbelief. “Rourke!”

“What? It’s true.”

He sighed and adjusted his Stetson hat and said nothing.

“Come on,” I said. “I’d say we’re wasting daylight, but it doesn’t exist here.”

He shook his head and we stepped out. “To be honest, Rourke, I say it’s a good sign that John’s horse is still here.”

“I agree. If word got out that a Granger was killed, they’d find out who and sell his horse to free up room in the stable.”

We walked over to where Mary stood. We were at the top of the small hill that the stable and train station were built upon. Before us, in a choking haze of coal smoke and lamplight, a huge city rose up from a central hill.

This area was a series of peaks and valleys. A wide river ran through the low points and for countless centuries, its waters carved out three hills from the countryside. There were two small ones on either side of a large wide hill, where the vampire city resided.

Golgotha was big. At least double the size of Concordia, and oddly enough, it had no outer wall. The river served as a moat of lethal liquid, the stench alone could deter people from wanting to sneak inside.

Tristan shivered and tightened his scarf around his face.

I tied mine around my nose and mouth to block out the smoke before I started coughing. Mary had already tied a kerchief about her face. This place was covered in a blanket of smog. It was hard to breathe in. It was enough to throw a strong, able-bodied man into a coughing fit.

“What is it Tristan? You sense something?”

“Yes. I can feel the laylines here. They cross the river, and form points of power in the center of the city. There’s something in the deep here, underground the city. I can feel it, its frozen claws trying to dig into my head. This city. It’s alive. Somehow.”

“The oldest cities are, you know. Sentient. They have their own souls. Little Gods, spirits of the place. I’d hate to see what hellspawn was brought into being by this necropolis. It’d be a nightmare to deal with if we accidentally pissed it off,” Mary said.

“Oh, that’s so reassuring. Thank you for that. Not only do we have to worry about vampires, now we have to worry about a god of a city of the dead. Wonderful.”

“Have faith, we shall survive this,” Tristan said and I glared at him. “What? You don’t have faith all of a sudden? Sophia has not abandoned us. Not by a long shot.”

“Not yet she hasn’t.”

Mary gave me a look that turned my blood cold.

“As long as I live on the god’s green acre, Sophia will be with ye. Understand?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Good. Let’s get going. We need a hotel room and a city map, yes?”

“That we do. Without a street map, there's no way I can figure out the trail John drew for us.”

"Then let's go find one."

"Works for me."

We walked across the empty bridge to the chilly, lonely cobblestone streets of Golgotha.

There was a large sign on the side of the bridge that gloomily announced in stark letters that we were entering the North Cordon, Caturix district. The white sign was stained black from the sooty coal smoke that choked out the skies.

On an adjacent bridge to our right, large metal boxes on wheeled flatbed carts were being pushed by teams of pale, grim-faced men. All of them had scarves or kerchiefs tied around their faces, and the cloth was stained black. Streaks of soot covered their jackets and hats as well.

The river was full of sludge and foam. The heat from the water made it steam. Soft green lights winked in the murky depths and I shuddered to think of what kind of creatures could live in such a toxic stew.

Stark red flowers on pale gray stems lined the river bed. Occasionally dropping to the ground and oozing apart. They looked like they were bleeding.

The snow along the river bank was yellow, with black ash on top. It smelled awful, like an over-filled outhouse at a county fair.

Not something that any sane person would willingly live by, that’s for sure

I had never seen anything like it, but I had heard of runoff waters coming from manufacturing plants that had popped up in the Formicarium in the east. The closest thing I have been to one of those was a logging camp. The sheer size of the scale of production was mind-boggling to me.

Mary noticed me watching the men pushing items to the waiting train and said, “The factory district is over there. Many things are fabricated here, and then shipped to Eugenica and assembled. The trains bring back up iron and coal from the domed city. They're manufacturing supplies. There's whole chain of production in motion. It's a rather impressive business, to be honest."

“So…where does the final product get sent?” I asked.

 “The Formicarium,  to the Imperial army mostly. They make swords and firearms. Canons. That sort of thing. They also make parts for trains; rails, spikes, wheels and so on.”

“How do you know this?” Tristan asked.

She shrugged. “I forget who I was speaking to. Some official dandy somewhere on the road. I think I was in Trafalgar, a few years back.”

“Fascinating.”

"Come on, let's stop gawking and get a move on before we're spotted by the locals."

All the buildings here were topped with Gothic spikes and spires. On the rooftops, skull bottomed lightning rods and hideous grinning gargoyles stared down at us with ruby eyes.

The buildings were all made out of a dull grey stone that they brought over from the quarry that we had passed on the way here.

"Look," Tristan pointed to the clock tower that loomed before us from where it stood on a corner building.

It had 24 hours on it. Not the usual 12.

"Bizarre."

"How else would they know what the time was? It's not as though they can tell from the position of the sun, or the moon for that matter. Neither have risen here in centuries," Mary said and I nodded.

She was right. It was just odd to see it.

There were double the street lamps, which made the hazy smog that filled the streets glow an eery yellow light. It was unsettling, how quiet it was. Other than the sound of men working to unload from the train, we heard nothing. No bird calls, no dogs barking or cats raising a fuss. Not even groups of people chatting as they walked hurriedly along, as they would if we were in Concordia.

It was creepy, to say the least.

Most cities were bustling with activity during daytime hours. It was 12 noon on the dot. I compared my pocket watch with the clock tower just to be sure. Yup. It was lunchtime.

So where were all the people?

“What’s wrong?” Tristan asked, looking around warily.

“There’s no one out and about at high noon. It’s rather odd, don’t you think?”

“Rourke, this is a vampire city,” Mary said. “Work hours and living hours are reversed. Wait until midnight. You’ll see. Day is the night shift for them. Even though here, there is no daytime. It wasn’t always like that. The town that the necromancer’s curse started in, is far north of here, near the mountains. And, well, old habits die hard, especially after generations of working under vampire rule.”

“So what you are saying, is that this was a vampire city BEFORE it was swallowed up by the Night Lands?”

“Yes.”

I whistled. That had to be before the Imperium started colonizing the new world. That was one hell of a long time ago.

“If the sun never shines here, what do they eat?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah, what DO they eat?” I asked.

Mary paused by a street lamp, it was one of those fancy iron poled kerosine lamps whose flames framed her head in a halo of yellow light and lit up a cigarette.

“Canned food, mostly. Like Eugenica. There’s a rumor that in the catacombs there’s a sun garden, where human nobility get fresh food from, but I have no idea if that’s true or not.”

“Sounds lovely. Come on, let’s go find a room and a map.”

The further we walked into the city, the thicker the yellow choking fog became. After a time, we couldn't see more than a few feet ahead of us. It was like moving through a thick soupy mist that smelled like dead fish and sulfur. It was going to take several washes to get the smell out of our clothes.

We kept walking and walking, looking for someplace to buy a city map at. But just about every store was closed.

An hour later, we were totally and completely lost. 


Poor Tristan was limping and in obvious pain, his feet had to be a complete mess at this point. He didn't complain, but I knew that it had to hurt immensely.

My right knee was griping, the leg inflamed from absorbing the impact of Tristan’s Uncle Gideon’s fists. But my back didn't hurt. Not one bit. I got some feeling back into my right hand, thankfully, but the arm was still a bit numb. Nothing I couldn't handle, to be honest. I was more annoyed with the fact that we were lost, and running out of time.

Not just for me, but for John.

The longer it took us to find him, the more time those evil vamps had to sink their her fangs into him and turn him into one of their kind.

That didn’t sit well with me, at all.

I stopped in the middle of the street when I noticed that we had walked past the same building three times.

“Wait. Wait. Stop,” I said.

Mary sighed angrily. “What.”

“We’ve walked past this shop three times. We’re lost.”

“We are?” she asked.

“If Rourke says that we’re lost. We’re lost," Tristan said. "He has the best memory out of anyone I know. He knows what he is doing.”

“If you say so.”

“Look, this seems to be the only place with lights on. So, I’m going to go inside and see if they can point me to somewhere I can purchase a street map. We can’t just go walking willy-nilly in such a huge place with foggy labyrinthine streets that just go in circles.”

“Fine, we’ll stay out here and keep the bench warm for you.”

"You do that," I said and left them out at the side of the street, where they sat down on a wooden bench under a street lamp.

It seemed a bit out in the open, but the smoke and fog made it hard to see more than six feet in front of you. It really hampered visibility.

I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

I silently prayed to Sophia that Tristan could keep Mary in line while I was gone and pushed open the heavy oak door to the shop. What they sold there, I had no idea. The sign was written in a language that I had never seen before.

The interior smelled of mothballs.The walls lined with faded yellow paper, and a man was sitting at a desk facing the door. A well-stoked fireplace roared happily behind him.

On the wall by the hat stand, was another rack, where a brass gas mask hung forlornly. He must be well-to-do, to own such a thing. Looked rather expensive.

The man was scribbling on paper with a fountain pen. He didn’t look up.

He was so pale, like he would just burst into flames if he stepped out into the sun. Like the noblemen I saw on the train, his skin looked fragile, like parchment, and his blue and red veins were easily seen from within.

I saw posted on the wall by the door a wanted poster. It was of John- wanted for murder and theft. One thousand gold crown coins reward. That was a lot. Even for one of us.

My boots sounded loud on the polished wooden floors.

I pulled down the kerchief to show my face and said, “Excuse me.”

The man finally looked up. His eyes sunken in. Tired. Hollow. They searched my face, then looked me over. The fact that he noticed the gun holsters slung at my hips and the throwing knife bandoleers I had strapped to my chest was not lost on me.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice almost a whisper.

“I was wondering if you could point me to where I could purchase a street map. I’m here on business and I’m terribly lost.”

“Ah. Well, I have one. It’s rather dated, but you’re welcome to it.”

“Oh, really? How much?”

“Don’t worry about the price. It’s on the house,” he said and slowly opened a desk drawer and pulled out a thick folded map. “Districts have changed, but the street names are the same. Should help I imagine. At least it will assist you in getting your bearings. I’m told by foreigners that their sense of direction gets upset the moment they step inside the city. Probably due to all the iron in the buildings.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. An interesting phenomenon. One I should like to study someday, I think.”

“I can appreciate your healthy sense of curiosity. Keeps the mind sharp.”

He smiled tersely.

“Are you sure you don’t want payment for this?”

“Positive.” He handed it to me, looked me dead in the eye. He didn’t let go of the map. “Stay. Safe. Don’t go to the center of the city at midnight.”

“Oh?”

“The nobility. They’ll smell new bloodstock on you. You won’t stand a chance.”

“What makes you think I would want to go there?”

“You’re a hunter, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’ll find yourself drawn there, one way, or another. She always gets what she wants, after all.”

“Who?”

He smiled, it was a creepy, knowing smile full of yellowed and rotting teeth. “You’ll see.”

He let go of the map.

“Thank you, kind sir, your help is much appreciated.”

“Don’t mention it. Now, please leave. And keep in mind, if I am asked, I never saw you here.”

“Understood,” I said and walked out, frowning.

I started unfolding the map and instantly regretted it. I fumbled with it as I stepped over to Mary and Tristan.

“Found one, huh?” she asked. “In the first place you bother to step inside to ask. How convenient.”

“Yeah…about that. The prince of the city, she knows we’re here.”

“Of course she does,” Tristan said. “It’s not as though we’re trying to blend in while we look for John.”

“You saying that we should’ve done more research before stepping into the snake’s den?”

“Mayhap.”

“I see. Thanks for mentioning that now. Damn it, I have no idea how to open this up right. It’s folds within folds.”

“Give it here,” Mary said.

Tristan’s head perked up and he looked around. “You hear that?”

“No.”

He stood up, alarmed.

A little girl’s scream pierced the air.

“Help! Someone help!” a girl's voice called out. She sounded vulnerable. Scared.

Before I could say anything, Tristan bolted, running at top speed towards the sound of a girl’s panicked voice.

“Wait!” I shouted.

“Damn it,” Mary said and tossed the map at me. I shoved it in my jacket pocket and we both ran after Tristan, who quickly turned a corner into a dead end alley and drew his long sword.

“Tristan! Stop!”

As soon as we caught up with him, we were immediately surrounded by a gang of men. No. Not men.

Vampires.

Their fangs and silver eyes glinted in the lamplight.

“Shit.”

Mary stood with her back to us, watching our only exit as she pulled her guns.

I took out my six shooters.

In the center of the alleyway, a young girl stood, blood slathered down her chin. It had soaked down the front of her white frilly dress and into her grey wool overcoat. Her white Mary Jane shoes had splashes of blood on them.

She stood there, smiling sweetly at Tristan.

A woman lay dead on the cobblestone, her throat gone, torn out by the vicious little vampire.

The corpse looked fake.

My mind expected a puddle of blood to be beneath her. But she was drained dry by the pack of vamps that now surrounded us.

The girl had drunk her fill, her cheeks rosy from the blood she had engorged herself with.

The others were hungry.

I could see it in their silver eyes; empty, starving, half-mad with hunger.

“Have you come to help us?” she asked. “My friends are very hungry.”

I could feel Tristan drawing on his fighting magic, the electric charge filled the air and made my hair stand on end. He was about to get serious and introduce her to the point of his blade.

“You killed an innocent woman,” he said, his anger barely contained.

The girl laughed and clapped her hands. “Uh-huh. And now we’re going to kill and eat you!”

Oh. Great. The girl was the master vampire of the pack. Wonderful. 

I heard Mary cock the hammers on her guns. “Six behind, seven in front,” she muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not. But I appreciated the headcount.

I could handle four of them on my own, while Tristan went after their sire, the little girl who had eaten first.

Vampires had a pecking order, and she was clearly the one in charge of this pack of fanged nightmares. She was the smallest, and toughest one there.

Mary could take the six behind us, or so I hoped. I know she didn’t have her blessed magic guns, but still, she was no slouch when it came to firearms, and she had been fighting monsters for a hell of a lot longer than the both of us combined.

“Look, kid,” I said, hoping to distract her. “We’re not from around here. We don’t want to cause any trouble. All right?”

“I know. You smell delicious. Fresh stock for my brood. Maybe I’ll keep the big one to breed. He looks like a good strong bull of a human. I’ll mark him and sell off his seed.”

“That’s disgusting! How dare you!”

“Tristan, keep your wits about you, she’s trying to piss you off.”

“I know, and it’s working.”

The girl’s smile fell. “Aww, not happy to help now?”

“You,” he said darkly. “It was you who got us lost here. You clouded our minds, and drew us out, to this secluded space.”

“Yup! That was me!” She tilted her head, her dirty curled blonde locks drooped to the side.

“You’re different. You’re like us, mind-speaker.”

“He’s psychic. He’s nothing like you, you fiend,” Mary said and the tone of her voice made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Her words were laced with the black promise of murder and bloodshed. It was terrifying.

Boy, was I glad that she was on my side.

“Hm...I’m done playing. Kill them. Save me the big one,” she said, and we all braced for the attack.